WASHINGTON — An Associated Press news picture of Sen. Barack Obama trying on local garb during a 2006 visit to Kenya was posted on the Drudge Report on Monday, triggering testy exchanges between the Clinton and Obama campaigns.
The dustup over the picture — which had previously been on various Internet sites and featured in a U.S. tabloid paper — comes as Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) debate today in Cleveland.
The Drudge Report said the photo was circulated in an e-mail by unidentified “Clinton staffers,” which prompted Obama campaign manager David Plouffe to call it “fear-mongering” and “divisive politics.” Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said it was “outrageous” to finger the Clinton campaign for circulating the photo and said as far as he knew, they had nothing to do with it.
Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams’ retort to Plouffe: “If Barack Obama’s campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed.”
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said he was aware of the picture before Monday; he had spotted it in the National Enquirer and then found it on various Web sites. He said the issue for the campaign was “the motivation behind the circulation” of the picture.
The photo itself is something of a political Rorschach test, with the meaning up to the beholder.
The picture was taken Aug. 27, 2006, midpoint of Obama’s Kenyan Aug. 24-30 visit. The AP picture shows Obama wearing a turban and some garb over his sportshirt and khakis. The AP caption said Obama was “dressed as a Somali elder by Sheikh Mahmed Hassan.”
Obama, whose father was Kenyan, was treated as a head-of-state during the Kenyan trip with his wife, Michelle, their two daughters and friends, including Anita Blanchard, who is the wife of Marty Nesbitt, the treasurer of Obama’s presidential campaign.
On Aug. 27, Obama made a sidetrip to the Wajir region of Kenya. He left Nairobi’s Serena Hotel in the morning and boarded a military C-130 transport with a staffer, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration, an adviser, and military security personnel. He returned in the afternoon, where he toured Kibera, the notorious slum. The press traveling with Obama in Kenya — I was one of the reporters — did not go with him on the Wajir leg, told there were too many logistical challenges.
Gration was with Obama in Wajir. “I was along on that picture,” Gration said. They were seeing a “community mobilization” in Wajir and during the course of this, Obama was given an outfit, and “as a great guest,” he tried it on. Obama did “what any leader should do . . . accept the gift, accept the hospitality,” said Gration.
UPDATE….I should have noted that Gration is now an Obama campaign advisor.